Movie Review – Sócrates (2019)
At the opening of this film, which premiered nearly a year ago at the Los Angeles Film Festival, there is a title card. It reads, “This film was produced by a crew of 16-20 year-olds of the Querô Institute, a UNICEF-supported project that provides social inclusion through film-making to teenagers of low income households in the Baixada Santista region of São Paulo, Brazil.”
Alexandre Moratto is the director and co-writer. He partnered with the Querô Institute to create this work. This film is his feature debut. The Brazilian-American has until now made short films on various subjects like poverty and sexuality. Here, he combines the two subjects and has crafted what could be considered Brazil’s answer to Moonlight (2016). This film isn’t about the effects or even the legacy of drug trafficking or drug addiction on the psyche of a young, dark-skinned male with same-sex attraction. This film is instead about the effects of sheer, socioeconomic depression and what that can do to the psyche of a pubescent black boy with gay tendencies. It’s less about internalized homophobia and more about an externalized one, particularly from a parent. It’s also more about loss, as well as grief subdued by surviving and the desperation from same.
Christian Malheiros stars as Sócrates Nascimento, a teenage boy, probably around 16, who lives with his single mother in or near the slums of his Brazilian city. His trips through his part of the city include shots of impoverished and run-down buildings, as well as a veritable shantytown. When his mother dies suddenly, he’s left without any way to pay the rent. A social worker suggests he goes to live with his father who is available, but there is a reason why Sócrates would rather eat out of the garbage than in his father’s home. He struggles to find a job, any job. His being underage, however, is a hindrance.
Unlike Moonlight, Moratto’s film doesn’t jump forward in time. Like the recent, Oscar-nominated Capernaum (2018), this film keeps the audience focused on the teenage boy’s perspective not just for one or two days, or one section of this film. Moratto stays on this teenage boy’s point-of-view for the entire film, pulling us through possibly weeks of his trying existence. Unlike Moonlight, this film isn’t limited or restricting in its portrayal of his lustful desire. Even when faced with greater and more blunt homophobia, this film is still able to embrace same-sex attraction with greater intensity.
Tales Ordakji co-stars as Maicon, an older guy, probably in his early 20s, maybe 19 or 20. His situation doesn’t seem as dire as Sócrates, but he does seem a bit desperate too. He works at a scrapyard. He sees Sócrates as a bit of competition at first. That seeing is possibly bitterness and jealousy. Later, his eyes on Sócrates turns to lust. Though it may be brief, we do see somewhat of a same-sex relationship extend beyond one moment or one scene of passion, which is not what can be said about Moonlight.
This film doesn’t feel as stifled or as restrained as Moonlight. It makes sense, given that Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winner was more about repression and masculinity in the black community as a cover or as an armor. The black boy at the center of Moonlight was trying to find ways to hide. The black boy here is instead trying to find ways to reach out and be out. Yet, he keeps hitting roadblocks.
Last year, this film was nominated for two Spirit Awards, including Best Male Lead for Malheiros. It was a much deserved nomination. Malheiros’ determination, his desire and his desperation are all put on display in this film, and he is brilliant. From the bottom of his voice to the top of his eyes, he pulls you into the screen, inviting you gently and then eventually grabbing you through his incredible performance.
Moratto also won the “Someone to Watch Award.” This too is a honor that I understand. It premiered last year before Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. However, I can see echoes of Cuarón’s bold choices and strong character focus in Moratto’s debut. It’s also not surprising that echoes of both Ramin Bahrani, acclaimed filmmaker from North Carolina where Moratto studied, and Fernando Meirelles, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker from Brazil, the same home as Moratto, are also present here.
There are echoes of Meirelles’ City of God (2003) and Bahrani’s Chop Shop (2008). It doesn’t devolve into the criminal element and at times the hardcore, criminal element as those movies did. It doesn’t have the heat, sweat and brazen violence of City of God. It’s not about the ingenuity and opportunism of impoverished people or the familial and friendly bonds in Chop Shop. Moratto’s film is more about isolation and anxious independence. Yet, there is a similar milieu and a similar, socioeconomic cry for help as could be said of both those aforementioned films.
The loss and grief expressed in this film might not just be for the loss of persons in one’s life, which is definitely what happens here. The loss and grief might also be one on a grander level. The economy in Brazil isn’t great. A lot of loss has happened in that regard. Moratto’s film is possibly a perfect reflection or highly emblematic of that, which makes this film really relevant on those terms.
Not Rated but contains sexual situations, brief violence and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 10 mins.
In Select Theaters on August 9.
Available on DVD and VOD on August 20 via Breaking Glass Pictures.